Bullpen collapses as Jays blow five-run lead

Neil Walker hit a tiebreaking two-run double in the eighth inning that capped a comeback from a five-run deficit to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Toronto Blue Jays.

PITTSBURGH – This is the conundrum the Toronto Blue Jays are facing at the moment: their starters aren’t able to get deep enough into games, and their overworked relievers aren’t reliable enough to get them across the finish line.

Saturday night’s 8-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates is the latest addition to a pile of evidence growing at a frighteningly quick and destructive pace, this time a comfortable 6-2 lead in the seventh inning squandered over a span of seven batters before the decisive runs crossed in the eighth.

That the latest collapse came a day after Sergio Santos blew a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning, and mere hours after a bullpen shuffle pulled him from the closer’s role in favour of a committee until Casey Janssen returns, only adds to the grief Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is feeling.

Lately, no matter to whom he turns, there is no answer, and every such loss crushes the soul a little bit more.

“We’re a little bit shell-shocked right now,” he said afterwards. “We’ve got to turn it around. Heck, we just started May.”

Adding to the bad news post-game was word that Brandon Morrow will be lost at least until July with a torn tendon sheath where the index finger meets the right hand, and if rehab doesn’t work then season-ending surgery will follow.

He was placed on the 60-day disabled list to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for top prospect Marcus Stroman (a corresponding move with the 25-man roster is due Sunday), who will join the beleaguered relief corps, at least “to start with,” according to Gibbons. The 23-year-old’s big personality and infectious energy may be just the dose of adrenaline the Blue Jays need right now, especially if he can start posting some zeroes immediately.

Aaron Loup had been doing that for the Blue Jays – stranding all 10 runners he’d inherited this season while holding right-handed hitters hitless in 23 at-bats before Saturday – but that all went sideways in a hurry.

R.A. Dickey was pulled after surrendering a leadoff double to Clint Barmes in the seventh and Loup got one out before going double, single, walk, RBI groundout and two-run double to pinch-hitter Jordy Mercer to knot things up.

Then in the eighth, Todd Redmond took over and surrendered singles to Ike Davis and Josh Harrison before Neil Walker clubbed a two-run double off the wall in centre for an 8-6 Pirates lead.

And that was that.

“Even if you give a couple there – we don’t expect to implode like that,” Gibbons said of the seventh. “I’m sure (the relievers) don’t want to hear that phone ring, I’ll tell you that. That’s the way it’s been going.”

Since the Blue Jays blew a 5-3 lead in the eight-walk eighth inning of a 9-5 loss to the Minnesota Twins on April 17, the bullpen has squandered leads in six other games, all losses, including Saturday.

“It’s tough because it can really spiral on you, that here-we-go-again syndrome that likes to creep into the mentality can start to set in if you’re not careful,” Dickey said of handling adversity. “Those guys down there are really, really, really good and so we just have to keep encouraging them and keep reminding them and keep giving them the ball and they’ll pitch out of it.”

More innings from the rotation would help, but that’s going to be even more of a challenge with Morrow gone for at least two months, if not longer. J.A. Happ returns to the rotation in his place instead of as the sixth starter as previously planned, and Stroman could certainly end up starting before long, as well.

Chad Jenkins took Morrow’s spot on the roster because the Blue Jays wanted another long man option in the bullpen, but boy Neil Wagner sure would have come in handy in this one (barring another injury, the 10 days Wagner must remain in the minors on option won’t expire until Tuesday). Jenkins was forced to mop up in the eighth for Redmond, who left the bases loaded.

The shame is that even with slightly better relief pitching, the Blue Jays could easily be the reverse of their current 13-17 mark, leading the American League East. Of cold comfort is that the rest of the division isn’t running away from them, but that shouldn’t distract from how they’re wasting a chance to get a leg up on their rivals.

“We’re certainly playing better baseball than our record shows,” said Bautista.

“We’ve got take care of ourselves and let the other teams worry about themselves,” he added later. “If we don’t dig ourselves into a huge hole there’s no reason we can’t come out of it if we keep playing consistently good baseball. This shouldn’t be happening on an everyday basis. This is in my mind, an anomaly. Hopefully we can stop it sooner rather than later.”

Lost is how they did lots of good in this one.

Jose Reyes opened the scoring in the third with an RBI double, and a four-run fourth that included an RBI double from Brett Lawrie, run-scoring single from Colby Rasmus and bases-loaded walk by Melky Cabrera gave Dickey more run support than he’s had to work with all season.
The knuckleballer gave two runs back in the bottom of the fourth, but Jose Bautista’s solo shot in the sixth made it 6-2 and seemed to leave the Blue Jays in cruise control.

The truth, however, is that right now there is no cruise control and there’s no lead that’s safe. And that’s most troublesome part of this for the Blue Jays – a bullpen supposed to be a strength is now a liability, and it’s costing them in a big way.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.